IN A STATE WHERE MANY A RESIDENT “grew up” somewhere else before moving to paradise, it can be challenging to make people feel like leaders of their current communities. But for over 28 years as CEO of Leadership Florida, Wendy Walker worked to guide retired executives and young professionals alike into roles of influence in the Sunshine State. Walker moved into the role of president emeritus at Leadership Florida in April, but before making that shift took one last trip from Tallahassee to Sarasota to visit members of the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. She also sat down with SRQ to talk about inspiring leaders into serving this state.

SRQ:What do you hope to see regional chambers of commerce begin to do in terms of engagement?   Walker: It’s all about finding opportunities to exercise leadership wherever they are. We try to take leaders from around the state out of their parochial mindset, out of the silos that they live in, whether professionally or geographically, and expose them to the issues that are affecting all Floridians. Only 35 percent of Floridians were born here; we are second only to Nevada in terms of the least amount of native-born citizens. We have a long state; the distance between Key West and Pensacola mirrors that from Pensacola and Chicago. Really, we have taken on the responsibility of bringing leaders together who never would have known each other and helping them understand the issues that are facing all parts of the state.

You have been in charge of Leadership Florida for 28 years. What has been the organization’s most important achievement during that time in your eyes? Over 28 years, the exciting thing has been the growth in terms of the number and diversity of leaders we can impact.There are more than 50 local and regional leadership programs around the state. Most of those, like Leadership Florida, started out with a class of 40 or 50 people a year. We determined a long time ago that we needed to get the message out about the importance of building a statewide community and the importance of thinking about things statewide instead of parochially, so we created a college Leadership Florida program. We created a young professionals leadership program. We launched an executive program for new CEOs that move to the state. One of the most exciting things we are doing right now is a program for those involved in K-12 education. We have produced programs for the Legislature, and we produce programs for mayors from throughout the state. 

A number of retired executives end up in Sarasota. Why is important to tap those CEOs for a program like this?  What we try to do is identify the new CEOs when they move to Florida and quickly introduce them to Florida and its issues. We want them to buy in to Florida as their home. They are in positions to influence public policy and to influence job growth, so the degree to which we can introduce them to other executives from around the state and share information with them about the critical issues facing Florida, the more prepared they will be to assume their leadership positions in the state. John Cranor, one of the members of the chamber here, was the chair of our executive leadership program. Through the years, various presidents of your hospitals have gone through. Dean Eisner, an entrepreneur and a leader here in town, and Roxie Jerde went through our executive program.

The battle to keep young professionals in town always seems to be a wrestling match in this area. How do you engage that demographic? Millennials can choose where to live. They don’t go where the job is, they go where they want to live and they will find a job or find a way to work from there. So the degree to which they build connections in the community—that is a huge influence measure for whether they will stay in a community or move out. Through programs like Connect Florida, we try to build connections among the young professionals, so if they do decide to change jobs or pursue another career, they will do it in Florida because they have already built an infrastructure here. In addition to the connections we build across their membership, we introduce them to people who can help them grow here—other executives or governmental people—and we’ve groomed allegiance to Florida. We make them Floridians. They are not just a Tampanian, or a Sarasotan or a Miamian. They become Floridians. You hear them say time and time again.

As you get ready to hand over the reins of the organization to Wendy Spencer (formerly CEO for the Corporation for National and Community Service), what do you hope to see from Leadership Florida?  I am incredibly excited that Wendy Spencer will be the next CEO. She brings a wealth of experience on the national level, which will enable her to bring in resources that I haven’t had. What I want more than anything is to make sure what continues is—in this increasingly siloed world—Leadership Florida continues to expose people to leaders who don’t think like they do. We watch one news channel, we hang with people who think like we do, we live in a neighborhood of people who think like we do. Leadership Florida helps people understand that there aren’t black hats and white hats: there are lots of shades of grey. We have a state that is almost 50/50 in terms of registrations between Democrat and Republican, and an increasing number, especially among our young people, with no party affiliation. So the opportunity for a Hispanic CEO from Miami to sit down with an African-American nonprofit leader from Palatka and for each to understand where the other is coming from, to understand the issues that each faces and build those bridges of understanding—that’s what I want.